PLANNING POLITICS--The Los Angeles Department of City Planning has done some crazy stuff in the past several years. Greenlighting skyscrapers that would be built on top of fault lines. Allowing developers to knock down affordable housing to build new luxury units. Continuing to hand out liquor permits in high-crime areas, even after LAPD Chief Beck wrote a letter asking them to cool it. I’m so used to the DCP doing things that are either irresponsible or totally irrational that I thought nothing they did could surprise me anymore.
But I was wrong.
At the beginning of May I was going through my inbox when I came across a hearing notice for a 21-story hotel that’s been proposed for the corner of Sunset and Cahuenga (graphic above)st. That caught my attention. I live in the area, so I know the intersection well. I scanned the hearing notice, and was surprised to see that the DCP was handling a project this large with a Mitigated Negative Declaration.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with this process, here’s a quick summary. The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires that project applicants complete an Initial Study to determine if there will be significant impacts on the environment. There are three possibilities. If there are no significant impacts, it can be handled with a Negative Declaration. If there are significant impacts but they can be mitigated, a Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) is used. If there are significant impacts that can’t be mitigated, then the project requires a full Environmental Impact Report (EIR). Doing an EIR is a long, complex process. It can be difficult and costly for developers, and many would rather skip it if possible.
R.D. Olson is the developer behind this high-rise hotel, and they obviously didn’t want the hassle of doing a full EIR. Lucky for them, the DCP was only too willing to oblige, and chose to handle the process quickly with an MND. In my opinion, this was completely inappropriate for a project of this size, especially considering the entitlements the developer was requesting. Check out R.D. Olson’s wish list. They’re asking for….
A Vesting Zone and Height District Change and an increase in Floor Area Ratio (FAR) of up to 6 to 1.
A Conditional Use to permit the sale and dispensing of a full line of alcoholic beverages.
Reducing required setbacks on the sides and rear of the project to zero.
Seems like the developer is asking for a lot. But let’s skip that for the moment, and take a look at the way the DCP has handled the approval process so far.
The hearing to consider approving all these entitlements and the adoption of the environmental document was scheduled for May 25. On May 4, I e-mailed the staff contact to ask if I could get a copy of the MND. He replied the same day, saying that the MND wouldn’t be ready for a couple weeks. That bothered me, because it meant the public would only have a week to study the document before the hearing. I wrote back expressing my concern, and asking if I could see the Initial Study. No answer. A few days later I wrote again. Still no answer. After another few days I wrote again. This time I got a response, but the staff contact made no mention of the Initial Study.
I finally realized that e-mailing was a waste of time, and I made an appointment to go to the DCP to look at the case file. On Friday, June 20, I made the trip to City Hall and rode the elevator up to the Department’s offices. A young woman handed me the file and showed me to a conference room. I sat down and started flipping through the documents. I was hoping that since the hearing was only five days away the MND would be available. No such luck. But what really surprised me was that in looking through the file I didn’t see any sign of the Initial Study.
Let me state this another way. In five days the DCP was going to hold a hearing to consider approval of a 21-story hotel in a busy urban area that required major entitlements, and the environmental documents required by state law were nowhere to be found in the case file.
But I did find another document that was pretty interesting. The traffic analysis for the project was done by Linscott, Law and Greenspan. They studied six intersections in the vicinity, including Cahuenga at De Longpre, Cahuenga at Sunset, and Cahuenga at Hollywood. Now anybody who’s driven north on Cahuenga or east on Sunset during weekday rush hour knows how bad the congestion is. Cars are often backed up for blocks. But according to Linscott, Law and Greenspan, all three intersections get an “A” for Level of Service (LOS) during the PM rush hour. Let me give you the definition of “LOS A” from the Highway Capacity Manual: "Free-flow conditions with unimpeded maneuverability. Stopped delay at signalized intersection is minimal."
It’s clear that the analysis offered by Linscott, Law and Greenspan has some serious problems. But you’d never guess that from the Traffic Assessment prepared by the LA Department of Transportation (DOT). They say, "....[T]he proposed development is not expected to result in any significant traffic impacts at any of the six study intersections identified for detailed analysis. The results of the traffic impact analysis, which adequately evaluated the project's traffic impacts on the surrounding community, are summarized in Attachment 1."
The other aspect of this project that really worried me was the liquor permit. In recent years the DCP has approved numerous liquor permits for clubs, bars, restaurants and hotels in the Hollywood area, apparently unconcerned about the high-crime rate associated with local nightlife. But LAPD Chief Charlie Beck was so worried about this practice that he wrote a letter to the DCP in October 2014 to express his concern about the “oversaturation of ABC [alcoholic beverage control] locations” in the Hollywood area. In his letter, Beck said that the high number of businesses serving alcohol was putting a strain on police resources, and listed some of the problems associated with local nightlife, including robberies, thefts, fights with serious injuries, shootings and rapes.
I wanted to talk about all these issues at the hearing, so I showed up at City Hall on May 25. I was surprised when the hearing officer opened the proceedings by announcing that they were doing things a little differently for this project. Since the MND wasn’t ready yet, this would just be a preliminary hearing. Later, when the document had actually been completed, the DCP would schedule another hearing. This was a first for me. I’d never heard of such a thing before, but I guess they finally realized that giving the public the opportunity to comment on a document before it was actually released didn’t make a lot of sense. Also, it would have made it very easy to challenge the DCP’s determination.
So after listening to the project reps give their spiel about how great this hotel would be, I got my chance to talk. I told the hearing officer I thought an MND was inadequate; I said I believed the traffic analysis was seriously flawed and explained that I was worried about approving yet another full alcohol permit in an area that clearly had serious problems related to nightlife.
And that sparked an interesting discussion about the permit. The project reps assured me that this hotel would not be creating undesirable impacts. The clients they wanted to attract were business travelers, not night clubbers. There would be no parties on the rooftop deck. There would be no DJs. There would be no live music. This hotel was going to be geared toward the upscale business class. Any fears about the project adding to the problems caused by the party scene were completely unfounded.
At the time, I bought it. But then I remembered that I’d seen a post on Urbanize LA announcing the project. According to that post from August 2015, no operator had yet been named. I contacted both the developer and the DCP to ask if Olson had signed an agreement with someone to run the hotel. No response from either. Why is this a concern? Because the operator will be the one to determine who the hotel caters to and what kind of clientele they want to attract.
R.D. Olson isn’t going to be running the show. Any promises they make about how the hotel will be run are meaningless. And the DCP knows that. Lately they’ve been making a practice of handing out liquor permits to developers instead of business owners, which means there’s no way to assess the impacts and no meaningful way to attach conditions governing the use of the permit.
Why am I going on at such length about this proposed hotel? Because it’s a beautiful illustration of just how bad things have gotten at the Department of City Planning. We have the decision to use an MND for a project that clearly requires an EIR, the bizarre plan to hold a meeting to consider a document that wasn’t even finished, the absurdly inaccurate traffic analysis, and the approval of a full liquor permit with no clear idea of how the business owner will use or abuse it. When you add all this together, it seems to me that the Department’s highest priority is serving the developer.
The substantial impacts this hotel could have on the community have all been brushed aside to speed the approval process. I get the impression that the folks at the DCP feel like they can just disregard state law. And even worse, it seems to me that they’re completely oblivious to the public’s interests here. I get the feeling that they just don’t care.
This is what planning looks like in the City of LA these days. A shoddy, haphazard process driven by developers with deep pockets. This is just one hotel in Hollywood, but there are people all over LA who are frustrated by the DCP’s apparent lack of concern for their communities.
Last Thursday, I wrote again to the staff contact to ask if the next hearing had been scheduled. You won’t be surprised when I tell you I haven’t heard back yet.
NOTE: If you’re interested in talking to the DCP about this project, here’s the case number: CPC-2015-2893-VZC-HDCUB-ZAA-SPR
(Casey Maddren was born in Los Angeles and has lived here most of his life. He tries to capture as much of the city as he can in his blog, The Horizon and the Skyline.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.